The timeless tale of ‘star cross’d lovers’ and ancestral strife is one of the most well-known and widely adaptable works of literature, but just what makes a great adaptation of Romeo and Juliet? Passion, poetry, power, pathos: even without the Bard’s words, English National Ballet’s staging of Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet is all that and more.
The choreography is perfectly poised between the grand and the gentle: the crowd scenes are feasts of chaos and activity, from families at war to flag-waving to fellas womanising away, and the Capulet ball is a grandiose pageant of patriarchal control as the men flaunt their women like fashionable capes and the brass of Prokofiev’s music beats beneath. The fencing and fight scenes are frenzied and furious and performed with such force by a male corps, with the opposing families captained by Pedro Lapetra’s petite but capricious Mercutio, James Forbat’s benevolent and beautifully-jumped Benvolio, and Fabian Reimair’s prowling, Prince of Cats, the cavalier Tybalt. With much of the fighting between the young Montagues and Capulets founded on attempts to emasculate each other – crossing swords, kissing, hands sweeping across crotches – it cleverly captures the anxieties of masculinity in cultures contemporaneous to the play, this 1977 production, and the modern day. For a four hundred year old play and a forty-year-old production, the performance feels fresh, poignant, and full of life.
While the vigour and grandeur powers the production through the prose of the play, its poetry and gentleness lies with the lovers. Aaron Robison’s Romeo moves from laddish daydreamer to ardent lover to desperate outlaw, and his spirited, playful allegro in Act I are elevated to soaring leaps and fast turns in the freely expressive pas de deux that descends, as the lovers do, into a dance of death in the last Act. And that last Act belongs to Jurgita Dronina’s Juliet: blossoming into a bold young woman from the blushing girl made to dance with her betrothed at the ball, she’s reckless with her Romeo, flying in death-defying lifts and falling, drunk with love, into his arms. Yet, Dronina is also immensely arresting, fearlessly fighting off her mother – a frighteningly fatalist Stina Quagebeur – and facing her fate with a searing, silent scream. A promising new partnership for English National Ballet, the balcony pas de deux is playful and passionate, the farewell in Act III fraught and full of longing, and it's the gentlest of touches – palm to palm, an echo of Shakespeare’s ‘holy palmer’s kiss’ in the play – that are the most touching.
Prokofiev’s magnificent score has never felt more passionate or more powerful in the hands of the English National Ballet Philharmonic and under the baton of Gavin Sutherland, particularly in the strength and strings of the ‘Dance of the Knights’ and the soaring beauty of the ‘Balcony Scene’, and Ezio Frigerio’s rich, Renaissance costumes not only place the period but part the feuding families into colour-coded factions. This is a truly transcendent dance production, impressive as a piece of drama in its own right and a spirited and spectacular adaptation ‘of Juliet and her Romeo’. - Leah Tozer